A Travellerspoint blog


Chapter 22 - Vegemite and Vodka (Suzdal and Siberia)

By Neil

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Suzdal, Russia

“So the story was, she dressed up a baby doll and pretended it was her child”, said Natalia, our guide in Suzdal.

Euxodia Lupokhina, the first wife of Peter the Great, was sent to the Intercession Convent because Peter deemed the marriage unhappy. It turns out that both this excuse and outcome were pretty common for wives of the time. Anyway it was unclear as to how may children Euxodia had (and by whom) due to this rumor about the baby doll.

The Intercession Convent and the Kamenka River, Suzdal, about 200 km’s east of Moscow

“They thought the story was not true until, during the Soviet era, they were looking into some old coffins and found one had a baby doll in it”.

Having been exiled Tsarita Euxodia had an affair with a bloke called Stepan (turns out being exiled was not all that bad). He ended up being quartered (um, well, at least not for her). Er, ouch!

Peter the Great had 14 children to his two wives; Euxodia (3) and Catherine (11). 11 of the children died before the age of 4. Bloody Hell!

One of his children to Catherine became Empress Elizabeth, another married but died at the age of 20 from a post birth infection after she gave birth to the future Tsar Peter.

Peter’s only son who lived to adulthood, Alexei got into a bit of a disagreement with Peter. Oh My Lord! I’ve just read how Peter had him killed! Suffice to say, it was really, really nasty! It kind of made quartering look nice ….

Suzdal, however, is an idyllic Russian town, located 240 km east of Moscow.

Now there’s a thing. It gets bloody cold in winter. And the big church gets really cold. So they build a big church for summer and a small church in winter….. Makes sense to me…

The fields are green, the flowers bloom, the stream is clear and there are beautiful churches.

The Cathedral of the Nativity in the Kremlin, Suzdal

Nearby Vladimir was the capital of Russia for almost 160 years, long before Moscow was a glint in anyone's eye, and these towns form a part of the Golden Circle of towns and cities around Moscow, which preserve early history of the Orthodox Church in Russia and are renowned as 'open air museums' due to the extraordinary number of unique monuments of Russian architecture dating from the 12th to 18th centuries, including churches, kremlins, monasteries and cathedrals. Suzdal' fortunes dipped when the efforts of the local commerce tried to influence the building of the Trans-Siberian railway through Suzdal in 1864 failed (losing out to Vladimir) and it faded into a beautiful relic of of former times.

The 1590’s built Cathedral of the Transfiguration of the Saviour has a bell ringer who has definitely had quite a bit of coffee before he starts his hourly gig of playing a dozen by himself bells for over 10 minutes.

Just add coffee….

Founded in the 14th century to protect Suzdal’s northern entrance, the Saviour Monastery of Saint Euthymius was one of the mightiest monasteries of the time, partly due to the patronage of Ivan the Terrible.

The monks quarters, however, reflect some of the darker aspects of Russia’s past, becoming over the years, a delinquent boys home, a prison, and a part of the Gulag system. It is now a museum.

Suzdal really is very pretty. Particularly at sunset:

An old wooden church.


And then in the daylight.


With wooden houses:


And log restaurants:


It really was extraordinarily pretty.


Vladimir, up the road, was made Russia’s capital in 1157 by the fabulously named Prince Andrei Bogolyubsky after he’d had a stint in the Holy Land on a Crusade. He started the Assumption Cathedral in 1158 and it is the oldest continually used church in Russia. It is also the model for many of the other churches of the time, including those in the Kremlin in Moscow.

The Assumption Cathedral in Vladimir, 200 km east of Moscow.

However, my favourite in Vladimir (pronounced Vladeemer, like redeemer) is this place...

The Cathedral of St Dmitry, Vladimir

Not because it was built between 1193 and 1197. And not because it is on of the only surviving churches of its time with ornate limestone carvings covering both biblical and mythological beings. But because, well, the Russkies like their cognomina, e.g. Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, Catherine the Great (Not impressed with that. Maybe they should have gone for ‘Catherine the Fabbo’ or ‘Catherine the Shpeshalist’ or something), and the bloke who started off this Cathedral was called ‘Vsevolod the Big Nest’ because he was very fecund. He had 14 kids! Definitely going to start calling Nikki’s dad ‘Johnonnonski the Big Nest’ now.

Vladimir (the town, not the person), was the capital before….

The Greatest (Most Brutal?) Horsemen of all time.

Whilst Vsev was building his Big Nest in the late 1100’s, probably the greatest horsemen of all time, The Mongols, were starting what was to become the second largest empire of all time, the Mongol Empire.


Genghis Khan got really close to Vladimir/ Suzdal in 1227, but Genghis’ grandson, Batu Khaan, finished the job in 1237.

Batu Khaan – 1207 to 1255

Russia was part of the Mongol Empire for 250 years until 1480.


A Bloke went for a ride on a horse

In the last chapter of this Blog, I mentioned that a bloke called Karl Bushby went for a walk. From Ushuaia at the bottom of Argentina to Uelen in the Russian Far East. Across the Bering Strait.

This bloke, however, went for a ride.


Of course, it wasn’t a ride around a field. It was a big ride and his book was my first literary partner on the Cape to Cape trip.


Tim Cope, from down the road in Warragul in Victoria, Australia, decided to go on a bit of a trip.


From 2004 to 2007 Tim Cope rode his horses 10,000 km’s from Mongolia to Hungary. Why? Because he wanted to understand the relationship between man and horse and the life of the Mongol nomads.

He found that the Mongols were unbelievable horsemen. I don’t know one end of a horse from the other, but Tim’s description of:

- how the mongol’s rode,
- the materials they put on the horses backs to ensure the horses did not get sores,
- how they treated those materials to ensure the horses did not get sores,
- How they managed to find enough water and feed...

...is just fantastic. However, to try to understand just how far it is from the town of Vladimir to Mongolia, I couldn’t walk, I definitely couldn’t ride a horse (can you imagine? Just getting on I’d end up facing the wrong way….), so the only option left was for us to take longest train ride in the world – the Trans-Siberian. The Lonely Planet has a beautiful description that the Trans-Siberian ‘makes all other train rides seem like once around the block with Thomas the Tank Engine’.


The Trans-Siberian Railway

The Trans-Siberian is 9,829 km’s and runs from Moscow to Vladivostock

Map of the Trans-Siberian railway.

We were only going to do a hop, skip, and a jump on it; from Vladimir, 200 km east of Moscow to Irkutsk (4 time zones away) next to Lake Baikal, 4,205 km east of Moscow. 43 hours on the train. Nice.

We got on the train at 3am on the first day. It was a nice train. A cabin for 4 shared only by the 2 of us. Clean. With a little table. An electrical point. Clean sheets. And a window.

Trans-Siberian railway cabin window. And Breakfast.

There was a restaurant car with a menu.

The Trans-Siberian railway restaurant car menu.

There were trees out of the window. Quite a lot of trees actually.

View from the Trans-Siberian window

There were cards to pass the time. And Nik had bought a bottle of vodka.

43 hours on the Trans-Siberian is a long time

There were more cards. And Nik had vegemite.

Vegemite and Vodka.

Then it was night time.

Then it was morning.

Then there was vegemite and gherkins and a weird Russian mushroom spread on a brick of brown bread.

Then more of the same at lunch due to the restaurant car being closed.

Then there were more trees.

Trees and a storm..

Then there was a house.

A house…

Then there were more cards. But there was no more wine. Only Vodka.

Then I looked at the map.

“Crikey”, I said to Nikki. “We’re going to have to go really fast to get to Irkutsk by 6 am tomorrow morning”.

That’s when we discovered that the trip was not 43 hours as expected, it was 70 hours. Oops.

So then it was night time. So more gherkins and vegemite and then bed.

Then it was morning time.

This time with no gherkins or brown bread (we only bought enough for 43 hours not 70) and so we resorted to pot noodle and chips (there still being no open restaurant car).

Then the cards commenced again. Gin Rummy. First to 10,000 points. But there was no vodka or wine. By the way, if you ever get the chance to buy Yukon Gin, don’t. But it was all we had. It was so rough we needed something to mix it with. There was only Sprite. And no ice. Gin and Sprite. Hmmm….. But after the first couple of mugs, it seemed ok.

Cards. Gin Rummy. And Yukon Gin. And Sprite….

The Trans-Siberian, by the way, although it travels 9 time zones, remains on Moscow time for the whole journey. Including the dining car. Which is a bit weird.

After a few attempts, on our final night on the Trans-Siberian we found the restaurant open. Hoorah! We got a beer. With a German Bloke and a Russian-German-Armenian-Macedonian bloke.

Then, after 2 days with only pot-noodles, they kicked us out again so they could serve the kids!

However then we, and all of the other starving tourists, came back to the restaurant car at 8.30 pm and wouldn't go away until they fed us. And gave us another beer.

And wine.

Then the guitar came out.


Everyone sang along to the Boxer. Lei La Lei! is international. The Russians took the guitar and poured the vodka.

That is real vodka and real fear…..

Everyone started singing.

Everyone including the Russians joining in…

Then there was more vodka and singing.

Everything suddenly got blurry.

Then we were kicked out of the bar but a couple of people came back to the cabin with more vodka.
Nik woke up sitting up in bed at 5.30 am with the light on. She had not been able to lie down. I had passed out. The Providnista, the carriage attendant woke us up at 6 to say Irkutsk was approaching.

Unfortunately, I had died during the night.

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear…..

Sometimes I wake up a little dusty in the morning. This was not dusty. That Vodka is bad stuff…..


Irkutsk and Lake Baikal

We were taken by bus to a hotel lobby in Irkutsk where I slept for a couple of hours waiting for the transfer to the ferry. Nik even managed to get back onto solid food.

Then we took the ferry out to Bolshie Koty, a tiny hamlet on Lake Baikal.

Maps showing the location of Lake Baikal and also Bolshie Koty (at the bottom close to Listvyanka).

Lake Baikal is the biggest freshwater lake in the world. It is 636 km’s long. It is up to 1,637 metres deep. It contains 20% of the worlds fresh water. It is incredibly clean. And it freezes in winter.

Lake Baikal freezes in winter

In summer, the ice melts and it is very, very beautiful. There are current attempts to build a walking path around the entire lake that will be over 2000kms in length when completed. Both days we walked out along the track for spectacular views of the lake.

Stunning views from the lookout north of Bolshie Koty over Lake Baikal.

The view over Bolshie Koty from the lookout.

View from our hotel towards Lake Baikal

Traditional wooden Russian architecture in Bolshie Koty.

Views taken from our walk along the Great Baikal Trail.

It was, however, really difficult to imagine that, in winter the whole lake is frozen.

It wasn’t until 1905 that the Trans-Siberian was pushed beyond Lake Baikal. The area around the south of the lake was very difficult to build and involved 33 tunnels. Until it was built they put passengers into an Ice Breaker to get across the lake. In the very cold winter of 1903/ 1904, tracks were laid across Lake Baikal and the carriages were drawn by horses across the ice…..


Eastern Siberian Road repairs:

Lake Baikal is in Eastern Siberia. The winter is really hard on the roads and this was true in Bolshie Koty too. The roads had dips in them. The local people had been very thoughtful and put sheets of old roofing material into the dips. The building material had broken up a bit. Then a car went down the road. There was a bit of dust.

The tricky thing was that the old roofing material was Asbestos sheeting……


What is the Russian word for Mesothelioma?


End of an odyssey

Luggage transport - Bolshie Koty style

With that we headed back to Irkutsk and got on the flight to, inevitably, Moscow and then on to Riga in Latvia.
Russia had been amazing. We had experienced and learnt a lot. We had met some great people.
If you get the chance go…..


Posted by capetocape2017 08:50 Archived in Russia Tagged lake railway trans-siberian baikal suzdal boshie koty Comments (0)

Chapter 21 - St Petersburg, Moscow, and Russian Power

By Neil and Nikki

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That’s not a clock, THIS is a clock! – St. Petersburg.

No, it’s not a peacock. Well it is a peacock, but it’s a clock too.

The Peacock Clock in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg

Built by a Brit in 1791, it took some time to assemble it. Swiss clocks have a cuckoo. But the Peacock Clock in the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg does this.

The Peacock Clock showing the time……

The Hermitage is housed in four buildings, including the Winter Palace, which is quite simply the most ridiculously opulent, grand, outrageous palace I’ve ever seen. The Winter Palace was commissioned by Empress Elizabeth in 1754 but first lived in by Catherine the Great and then occupied by the Tsars and their families until the fall of the Romanov dynasty in 1917.


The Hermitage is a collection of art works started by Catherine the Great, which now has over three million items which rotate on display through 360 rooms in the Hermitage.

The Winter Palace which houses part of the State Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg.


Nik and I had taken the little hop of a flight from Anadyr in the Russian Far East to St Petersburg (as with all things in Russia, via Moscow).

A map of the flight from Anadyr to Moscow in the Anadyr Airport, Chukotka province, Russian Far East.

Flying 6,826 km and crossing 9 time zones, it not only took a while, it also took some time to get the body clock corrected. 6,400 km’s is the radius of the earth, just to give a sense of scale.

Also, just to add a little spice, the flight went above the Arctic Circle to 70 degrees latitude and we could see the Arctic ice pack. So technically we crossed the magic circle, but not really…

Arctic pack ice visible on the flight from Anadyr to Moscow.

More about the history of St Petersburg later, but suffice to say it was founded by Peter the Great in 1703. And, called the Venice of the North, it’s famed beauty is not exaggerated.

Canals in St Petersburg

It’s iconic buildings, including the Winter Palace and Church of the Spilled Blood, literally make you stop in your tracks as you stroll around this walkable and friendly city.

The Peter and Paul Fortress in St Petersburg.

We started with being shown to our great apartment right in the “Golden Triangle” of the city; cornered by the Peter and Paul Fortress, the Hermitage and the Moyka Canal. The following day we did a walking tour with our host, which was both informative about the history of St. Petersburg, but also her experiences of living through the tumultuous history of the breakdown of the USSR. We then had 2 days to simply soak it all in and enjoy the architectural eye-candy that is SP!

‘The Church of Our Saviour on the Spilled Blood’ that was built after Tsar Alexander II was assassinated on the site in 1881.

The 7000sq meters of mosaics on the inside of the Church on the Spilled Blood, St Petersburg.

The view across Palace Square to the Winter Palace through the arch in the General Staff Building. Catherine the Great lived in a much smaller building on this side of the arch, watching the completion of her new palace with this very view.

Global Colossus! Russia? No, I’m writing about that other world colossus, the Singer Sewing Machine Company. They were massive a hundred years ago and we’ve been seeing their machines everywhere (an entire storefront of 100’s of them in Berlin). In 1903, they built an amazingly elaborate store in St Petersburg, although they were forced to abandon it with the revolution 15 years later. Note the writing in red letters on a gold background. It says, “Company Singer”. Kind of proud that our Russian did at least get good enough to be able to translate words that are shared with English!

The Singer Building in St. Petersburg, now a bookstore and café.

Our pre-conceptions of Russia were somewhat clouded by our experiences getting the visas (see chapter 20 of the blog) and we were expecting (unfairly) officiousness and unhelpfulness (and bad food!)

However, this was far from our experience! St. Petersburg (and Moscow) were full of friendly faces (and plenty of English speaking – which helped with our very limited Russian). And the food? I discovered a new food heaven called herring, which I have now gone on to eat in every city we have visited in the last 2 weeks! Our first night in SP I made my first foray into herring heaven with Forshmak (minced salted herring and eggs) and Nik reacquainted herself with a long held fondness for Vareniki (or Peirogi/Pelmini depending on your origin). And we both discovered a newfound and unexpected taste for flavoured vodka, in this case a savoury horseradish vodka, served chilled and then sipped with our dinner. Locally produced, we spent the rest of our time in Russia trying to find a similar vodka experience, to no avail. Trust me there was lots of vodka, just not of the same unique taste, not matter how much we tried….

Forshmak (minced herring and egg) washed down with Vodka infused with Horseradish at Yat Restaurant, St Petersburg.

Vareniki with potatoes and mushroom and traditional Russian beetroot salad.


Onto Moscow.

Britain has Big Ben. Australia has the Sydney Opera House, France has the Eiffel Tower, and Russia has St Basil’s Cathedral:

Neil and Nik at St Basils Cathedral, Red Square, Moscow, Russia.

St Basil’s Cathedral was commissioned by Ivan the Terrible in 1552 to celebrate overcoming the Tartars in Kazan. It was completed in 1561. An interesting fact that our guide in Moscow was keen to point out was that Ivan’s moniker ‘Terrible’ is a mistranslation, and in fact is more accurately translated as ‘Powerful’, which was what was needed to defeat the Tartars. She also hastily pointed out that he was still “not a very nice man”.

And then, of course, the Kremlin. The entire complex below is the Moscow Kremlin, which includes the red fortress structure, 5 churches, a theatre, and a number of palaces, as well as the building inhabited by the Russian president.

The Kremlin, Moscow. Actually, it is a misnomer. “Kremlin” in Russian means Fortress, so in Russia there are lots of Kremlins…

And a twisty tower.

Twisty Tower, Moscow. Yes. Really.

And, very importantly, The Museum of the Great Patriotic War.

I never really understood before coming to Russia, how big it’s role was in the Second World War, or “The Great Patriotic War” as it is called there. Russia lost an unbelievable 27 million people during the war.

The Great Patriotic War Museum, Moscow.

Stalin was seriously miffed when, having signed a non-aggression treaty with Hitler, Hitler nonetheless launched ‘Operation Barossa’ in June 1941. With 4 million troops, 104 Infantry divisions, 19 Panzer and 15 motorised infantry divisions and 2770 aircraft (65% of the Luftwaffe). By December 1941 the Nazis were 30 km’s from Moscow.

The battle front was enormous.


But whilst the battles with the Nazis around Moscow, the Ukraine, the Baltic States were bloody, it was the 872 day Leningrad Blockade (as St Petersburg was called in 1941), that was perhaps the toughest fight.

The aftermath of the siege of Leningrad (St Petersburg) – 1941 to 1944

About a million-people died from the 150,000 shells, from starvation and disease. People ate pets, rats, and birds to survive. At one point the ration was 175 grams of sawdust laden bread per day.

There is, in my view, no question that without the Herculean efforts of the Russians during the War, necessitating so many Nazi troops and armaments being sent to, as the Nazis called it, the Eastern Front, that the outcome of the war could, and probably would, have been very different.

Russia also fought the war on fronts in the Far East with Japan as well.

The Victory room in the Museum is absolutely appropriate.

The Victory Room with plaques for each of the 16 theatres of war and the names of each of the 12,000 heroes of the war.


Now, onto the political vibe, man, from the Russian part of the trip. Plus, of course, going off on a tangent or two!

Communism. It’s a nice idea, isn’t it?

You know. We all work for the common good. “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs” as Karl Marx wrote in 1875. It all sounds like a nice idea. As Nik said, having read some of the writings of Che Guevara, “the concept is good, but the implementation that let’s it down (oh, and the dictators…)”.

Communism in Russia lasted from 1917 to 1989 – 72 years. Communism lasted in China from 1949 to 1979 – 30 years. In Cuba from 1959 to 2016 – 57 years. And it’s still going in North Korea. Or is that the Kim Jong Un dictatorship? By the way I was grooving down the other day to the latest hits “My Country is the Best” and “Song of Hwasong Artillery” (Hwasong is the name of North Korea’s latest missile, by the way) from that North Korean Girl Band called the Moranbong Band.

North Korean Girl Band, “The Moranbong Band”

Great stuff. (The “B” side on the first song also has the catchy title of “Kim Jong Un hasn’t murdered me. Well, today at least..”.)

Please, please, please google “Moranbong Band – Song of the Hwasong Artillery – You Tube”. It is, quite simply, gold. Fabulous. Horrible. Scary. Disturbing…..

But seriously, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution in China is estimated to have killed 55 to 60 million in the 1960’s and 1970’s (say 6% of the population), Russia is estimated to have killed 30 million in the Gulag’s, and 15 million due to the collectivisation in the 1930’s (say 15% of the population). As I said in earlier blogs, the education, equality, and health in communist countries is excellent, but the downsides are, in my view, not worth it.

So, in Russia, in 1989 – 1991, it all turned to custard.

The fall, and fall, and fall of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

It was this bloke who was the initial spark that lit the fire:

Lech Walesa – Born 1943 – Chairperson of Solidarity 1980 to 1990, President of Poland – 1990 to 1995

In the shipyards of Gdansk in Poland in August 1980, he led the Solidarity Trade Union movement. Instead of the tanks rolling in, as they had done in Hungary in 1956, General Jaruzelski, the leader of Poland, let it slide.

However, the kindling for starting the fire had started in the 1960’s and 70’s. Leonid Brezhnev had become the General Secretary in 1964. Repression increased, but so had the number of dissidents, and in 1972, the head of the KGB, Yuri Andropov, introduced forced emigration and imprisonment in “psychiatric institutions”.

The Soviet economy at this point had become moribund. Why? This beautiful cartoon sums it up.


The leaders of the Soviet Union and those on the Politburo had become fat cats.

Brezhnev became ill and was rarely seen after 1979. The kindling was as big as a house.

Soviet Union ready to burn in 1985.

Then these two old codgers were rolled out as General Secretaries (head honcho’s) of the USSR after Brezhnev’s death in 1982:

Yuri Andropov – Leader of the USSR from 12th November 1982 until his death on 9th February 1984

Konstantin Chernenko – USSR leader from 13th February 1984 until his death on 10th March 1985

Between them they lasted just over two years. The scene was set.

Add, at this point, add Gorbachev and Glasnost (Openness) and Perestroika (Restructuring) and the wood started to burn:


- 1987 – the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), the nuclear arms reduction treaty
- 1989 – Withdrawal from Afghanistan. (Advice to all politicians, world leaders, military leaders, please read the stories about the British Afghanistan invasions of the 1838-1842 and 1878 to 1880. Leave Afghanistan alone. It always has, and always will, end in tears. And failure. And massive loss of life).
- 1989 – The fall of the Berlin Wall.

Fall of the Berlin Wall - 1989

- 1990 – The reunification of Germany
- And on 18th August 1991 – the Communist Old Guard attempted a coup. They sent the tanks to the Russian Parliament. Boris Yeltsin went out to the tank drivers and convinced them to switch sides.

18th August 1991 – Boris Yeltsin standing on a tank after standing up to the Communist Old Guard’s attempted Coup.

With that, the Soviet Union was dead.


Economic Impact on the Russian Economy and People of the 1991 collapse.

“I was on the streets in 1991 but Yeltsin broke the industries in the country. People turned to drink. I know engineers who were reduced to begging drunks on the street”, one of our guides in Russia reminisced. (Now steady….. I know I’m an engineer and like the odd tipple, but…..).

I thought I’d take a bit of a look.


This is the graph showing the Russian GDP from 1991 to 2006. As you can see, there was massive drop from 1991 to 1999 of around 60%. Since then there has been a steady increase. Today the Russian Economy is at around US$ 1.3 trillion or, to put it another way, the same size as Australia’s. Compared to US$18 trillion for the USA, $16 trillion for the European Union, and $12 trillion for China. This reduction obviously had a massive, and painful effect on the Russian people.

The collapse was not a smooth process. Ask the people of Cuba, whose “money teat” ran dry in 1991 causing a 60% reduction in the Cuban economy almost overnight and led to the Cuban people losing, on average, a third of their body weight from 1991 to 1994. Yes, a third of their bodyweight!

In particular in the 1990’s there was the rise of the Russian Oligarchs, and also the mafia. The number of Mercedes, Lexus, etc I have seen in Russia is 10 times what I have seen anywhere else in the world. At the Kremlin, there was even an AU$1 million Maybach.

Boris likes a drink!

Whilst there is little question that Boris Yeltsin had a significant, and beneficial it can be argued, effect on the Russia, it was also known that he was fond of a drink or two. One of my enduring memories of Yeltsin is this one (they’d obviously had a couple before they came out to give a conference)

Boris Yeltsin tapping his watch to indicate to a very hung over looking Bill Clinton that it was time to end their press conference. Presumably so that could have a little tipple. Boris was later found wandering the Whitehouse lawn in his underwear in the middle of the night “Because he wanted a pizza”.

In late 1996, Yeltsin underwent quintuple heart bypass surgery, and then sank from view. It was then that this bloke emerged.

Vladimir Putin – President of the Russian Federation

Taking over as President in 1999. Putin, in general, has been a power for good in Russia. But now it’s time for a couple of lessons in Geogrpahy…..

Geography lesson #1

Here is a map of Russia’s access to the Sea of Finland (and hence the North Sea and the Atlantic) in 1700. Swedish territory is marked in orange, Russian in green. Note Russian access is blocked by the Swedish Empire.


One of the things Peter the Great worked out when choosing the site of his new capital was that access to the sea was crucial. You’ll notice from the map above that Sweden controlled Russia’s access to the sea in 1700. Then there was the war of Sweden (1700 to 1721). Peter the Great put paid to that and grabbed some seaside land for his new beach pad, the soon to be St Petersburg.

Off on a tangent:……….

Peter the Great was very tall…..

Did I mention that Peter the Great was 6 feet 8 inches tall? Or 204 cm? The average height in 1700 was 160 cm tall (or 5 feet 2 inches). Here’s Peter the Great.

Tsar Peter the Great – 1672 -1725

Now, so you’re the Tsar of Russia, right? You want to go to Europe to have a sticky beak at what they’re doing. Shipbuilding. Military. Society. Etc. So, you decide to travel incognito. So, people don’t know who you are. So the average height of people in 1700 was 160 cm (5 feet 2 inches). Can you just imagine Peter travelling incognito?


“Bloody Hell Beryl! Did you see that 6 feet 8 inch bloke walking by?”

“No not at all Arthur. He was wearing a hat”….

So, go with me here. Now imagine Peter the Great was American. And Black. And played basketball. Well, there is an American Basketball player called Anthony Carmelo who is 6 feet 8 inches tall. He is married to the rather fabulously named “La La”. She is 166 cm tall (5 feet 5 inches). So, a full 2.5 inches taller than people in 1700. And she could be wearing heels in this photo. This’ll give you some sense of the “travelling incognito” scenario….

American Basketball Player Anthony Carmelo (height 204 cm or 6 feet 8 inches) with his wife La La (Height 166 cm or 5 feet 5 inches).

Anyway, back to the story……

Geography lesson #2

Here is another map. This time showing the extent of the Ottoman empire before the Russo-Turkish War of 1768 to 1774 (when Catherine the Great was Empress of Russia) and after. Before Russia has no access to the Black Sea and after, it does, via the Crimean Peninsula. This is really important to Russia because, without the Crimean Peninsula, Russia doesn’t have a warm water port and access/ influence over it’s southern neighbours


Despite the Crimean war (1854 to 1856), the Crimean Peninsula remained effectively under Russian control.

After the collapse of the USSR in 1991, Ukraine granted Russia a 25-year lease on the Naval bases on the Crimean Peninsula.

Then in around 2004, the Ukrainian government started saying that they would not extend the agreement.

Background and comment on the sanctions against Russia:

So, you’re next to river with lots of Salmon coming up to spawn and next to you is a 900 kg Grizzly Bear. You’d leased the river to the Bear. But you say to the grizzly that you’re not going to extend the lease.

Not commenting on the right or wrong, just saying. The bear should not steal the river. And, very importantly, should not “Annex” it. The Europeans, and the world get very toey about countries that “Annex” other countries. Or parts of countries.


Now onto, in my view a much clearer situation. The “but there’s a lot of Russian’s in the Ukraine, so we should Annex it, or part of it” is just rubbish and should be called out as such. Talking with a Russian guide in Moscow, the comments were “the Ukrainians are just crazy and there are a lot of Russians that live there, at least in the east of the country, and Putin is standing up for Russia”.

To quote Albert Einstein, “if you want to know the future, look at the past”. Did I mention that Putin is from St Petersburg and really admires Catherine the Great? Hmmmm…..

In 2014, Russia agreed in the Minsk Agreement to play nicely. That didn’t work. In 2015, there was Minsk 2. That didn’t work. There were sanctions. Putin’s approval rating soared higher. Yesterday the USA said they’d increase sanctions against Russia. Once again, cartoonists have summed it up nicely.

Cartoon about Russia’s view on the sanctions against it for the downing of MH17 and the support for separatists in southern and eastern Ukraine.

The Russian Bear is hungry. Despite the cartoon above, the sanctions are, at a minimum, making Russia think a bit harder. Watch this space……. And look to history. Russians play a long game…….


Posted by capetocape2017 08:34 Archived in Russia Tagged moscow hermitage museum petersburg st putin sanctions yeltsin Comments (1)

Chapter 20 – Kamchatka Peninsula – Russian Far East

By Neil and Nikki

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Whet your visual appetites on some of these photos of our expedition up the Kamchatka Peninsula and the Chukotka Region of the Russian Far East! Many of these photographs were taken by a fellow intrepid traveller, Craig Smith, whose super dooper zoomy lens was a smidge better than the iphone that Nik has been using.

Zhupanova River, Kamchatka Peninsula.

“Er, bloody ‘ell”, I said to Nik, “that’ll be a volcano erupting”, as we sat in the Zodiac* cruising from our expedition ship towards the Zhupanova River for a day of bird and wildlife watching. We had set sail from Petrapavlovsk-Kamchatsky the day before with Heritage Expeditions for a two week expedition up the coast of the Kamchatka Peninsula, an area of the world very few non-Russians (or Russians for that matter) ever get to experience. “You don’t see that too often”. And it turns out that you don’t. Even the resident geologist on board have never actually seen a volcano erupt. It was a hell of a start to what proved to be an amazing trip.

(* For those that don’t know a Zodiac is a rubber motorised dinghy that we used to disembark from the expedition ship, both to get close to or on to the shore. More below!)

Photo of a volcano erupting in the distance, taken from the Zhupanova river (courtesy Craig Smith)

“Knock me over with a feather”, I continued, “I reckon that will be, unless I’m very much mistaken, a Stellar’s Sea Eagle”.

Zhupanova River – Steller’s Sea Eagle (Craig Smith).

OK. Busted. I wouldn’t know a Stellar’s Sea Eagle from a sparrow. But there were people much more knowledgeable about such things than myself on board, who assured me this wasn’t a sparrow. Regardless it was beautiful and allowed us to float within meters in the Zodiacs while preening itself on a tree branch before flying off.

At Verkhoturova Island

The Russian Far East is full of surprises. With more bird watching on the go at Verkoturova Island, Nik snuck off to climb a hill for the view. Half way up she encountered a red fox and they sat for 20 minutes watching each other. On the way down, Nik looked up to find the fox following her down the hill….

The Arctic Fox coming to take a look at Nikki (Craig Smith)

At the Goven Peninisula

After seeing black bears in Canada, we were really keen to see the much larger brown (or grizzly) bears in Russia. And we were not to be disappointed! Cruising up the beach at Goven Peninsula on the Zodiacs, we had this amazing encounter:

A mother brown bear with her three cubs.

The Russian Far East is stunning. And we were only on day 4. But let’s go back in time to 2009….

The original plan

It was back in about 2009 when Nik and I were on the Eurostar from London to Paris when the first seed of an idea emerged for us to travel from Cape Horn (at the bottom of South America) to the Cape of Good Hope (at the bottom of South Africa).

The original idea for our Cape to Cape world odyssey.

You’ll notice that in the original plan we would just hope across the Bering Strait from the Cape of Prince of Wales, Alaska to Uelen, Russia.

Time to go off on a tangent….

Karl Bushby and the Bering Strait:

In 1998, and English bloke called Karl Bushby decided he wanted to walk home. To Hull in England. From Ushuaia, at the bottom of Argentina. You’ll kind of appreciate from our trip that South America is, well, kind of big. But Karl took that in his stride and by around 2001 he’d arrived in Cartagena, Columbia. Now Nikki and I heeded the advice that the Darien Gap between Colombia and Panama is an impenetrable jungle full of Guerrilla’s and big rivers. We took a boat across the Caribbean Sea and all was good. Karl decided to walk and swim across the Darien Gap. When Karl said he wanted to walk, he meant it.

By 2006 he’d made it to the Bering Strait and well, since he’d walked all this way, he wasn’t going to let a bit of semi frozen ocean get in the way. So, he walked and swam across the Bering Strait. Yes, really. I like people who do crazy stuff, but that really was nuts. I recommend you google “Karl Bushby – Bering Strait – Youtube”. There are four segments and it’s some of the craziest stuff I’ve ever seen.

Karl Bushby walking/ swimming across the Bering Strait.

By the way, when he arrived in Uelen, Russia he was treated as a spy and sent back to America. He’s still wrestling with the Russian authorities to get a visa to finish his walk across Russia.

Nikki and Neil and the Bering Strait:

I asked Nikki if she wanted to walk to Uelen and the response was a single raised eyebrow. I took that as a no.

But we still wanted to get close to the Bering Strait at least. The closest we could come on the time frame we had was the above mentioned expedition ship run by Heritage Expeditions that was travelling up from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy up to Anadyr.

Maps showing the Russian Far East, the Bering Strait and Alaska, and the route taken by the Expedition Ship to Anadyr.

So we booked it.

Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy (PK) is 3,147 km’s from Anchorage, Alaska, the final stop on our trip through the Americas. Nice. A 3.5 hour flight. Yeah? Nah. There are no flights from Anchorage to PK (as Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy is called). To get to PK we had to fly via Anchorage, Seattle, Beijing and Khabarovsk. It was 14,510 km’s. And took 4 days (including a days lay over in Beijing).

By the way, when leaving Anadyr our original plan was to fly to Irkutsk on the Trans-Siberian railway, or Vladivostok and then continue to head west. Well, you can fly to those locations from Anadyr, but only via Moscow! Yes really. So, seeing as the only flight from Anadyr is to Moscow we decided to take it. It is kind of cool because it is the longest domestic airline flight in the world. 6,200 km’s and crossing 9 time zones.
However, before describing the amazing trip on the expedition ship, I thought I might mention the joy that is getting a Russian visa as an Australian.

The <insert your curse word of choice here> Russian Visas:

It’s just as well that we really wanted to go to Russia, because it’s been stupidly, ridiculously hard to get a visa. And for us, having to apply from overseas while already underway on our trip, I reckon it wouldn’t have been possible without our amazing agent Marie in Melbourne.

Hurdle #1 (July 2016):

Let’s start by saying that you have to apply for permission just to apply for a Russian visa. The permission is communicated via Telex. I didn’t know Telex still existed!

Then the Russian regulations state that you have to apply for the visa in your home country and you can’t apply longer that 90 days before you’re due to enter the country. But 90 days before we landed in Russia we were in South America.

“Aha!”, said Marie “you leave one of your passports with us”.
For me that’s ok, because I have dual UK and Australian citizenship. But what about Nik?
“You need to get a Concurrent Australian Passport”, said Marie.
“A what?”, said Nikki.
“You’re allowed to get a second Australian passport if you have a good reason”, said Marie.
“What about the Russian Visa Application forms?”, asked Nik.
“You can fill them out overseas, and then Express Post them to me. I’ll do the liaison with the Russian Embassy and then send your second passport, with the visa, out to you”.

So, Nikki got together a pile of documents about 4 inches thick and surprisingly quickly, got her concurrent Australian passport.

Hurdle #2 (March 2017):

So, in Rio de Janeiro we got our photos taken (because, for the Russian Visa, the photo can’t be more than 3 months old…), filled in the online form, got the pdf printed out, and sent it via express post to Marie in Melbourne. We were in one of the most amazing cities in the world (Rio) but had to spend a day and AU$150 to get the documentation sent off to Marie. But we finally did it and sent it (Whatever you do, don’t ask Nikki about Brazilian post offices!!)

Then 3 weeks later, we had just got off the boat in Leticia in the middle of the Amazon, when we got an email from Marie saying our applications had been rejected because the form had the wrong date on them and the photos were not good enough.

“Gosh!”, I said. “How very inconvenient!”. Or something along those lines.

Hurdle #3 (Early April 2017):

So, in Leticia, Colombia, in the middle of the Amazon, we got our photos done again. Against a white background. With the photos being 35 mm wide and 45 mm long. With our heads taking up 30 mm of the width. And not smiling. All of this being explained in Spanish.
Then we filled out the forms again, and asked our hostel in Bogota to print them off for us so we could post them before getting on the boat to Panama. Piece of cake. Yeah? Nah.

Did you know that the Russian form has to be printed out on A4 paper? And that A4 paper is 210 mm wide and 297 mm long? Sounds reasonable and straightforward? Well it turns out that Colombia doesn’t use A4 paper. At all. Anywhere. They use paper that is 216 mm wide and 279 mm long, i.e. shorter and wider. Who knew?

So, on our last day in the fabulous city of Bogota, Colombia, and in Spanish, I had to explain to a newsagent that we needed to print out the documents on A3 paper, but with the font at A4 size and then send it off to Marie (who could then cut the A3 to A4). The expansion percentage in the printer took some time to get right, but eventually we found that 91% was the correct expansion percentage.

Then the print shop ran out of A3 paper…..

So, we found another shop. And went through the whole process again. It only took three hours to print two copies!
Fortunately, the printer shop was also a DHL agent so we arranged to DHL the application to Australia. And after having to walk back to the hostel for our passports and the staff making 9 errors that required them to start the process over again each time, we had sent our applications off in a record time of 5 hours! Yay!

By then Nikki was a tad, er, sad. She said things like:

“Bother! Here was I <****> hoping that we would get to spend all of our last <****> day in Bogota seeing Bogota instead of sorting the <****> Russian Visas!!!!!!!!!”. She was kind of like the volcano at the start of this blog.

Hurdle #4 (Early May 2017):

We were in Central America when we heard that the visas had been granted! Hurrah! But would they actually arrive safely in our hands in the Americas?? We arranged to courier them to Nik’s aunt who lives in California. By this stage we had paid for the Russian cruise in full, so if the visas didn’t turn up…..

It was a nervous 7 days waiting for the passports and visas to arrive, but finally, only 9 months after the process started, they arrived in Ukiah, ready for pick up on our way through the USA!


I’ve just attended the presentation on the hassle that Heritage Expeditions goes through to get the approvals/licences/permits for the expedition up the Russian Far East. It put the hassle we’d gone through getting the Russian Visa’s in perspective….


Expedition Ship from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy to Anadyr

Vitus Bering

So, although we couldn’t go through the Bering Strait, it was good that we managed to connect with this bloke, Vitus Bering.

Vitus Bering – 1681 – 1741

Bering was initially engaged by Peter the Great, who by the way was 6 foot 8 inches tall, to carry out an expedition to the waters off the Russian Far East. He carried out two trips, both starting from PK. On these trips, he discovered the Bering Strait, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and the Commander Islands. Alas, in 1741, he was shipwrecked on the Commander Islands and died in December 1741. But he did get an island named after himself. And a sea. And a strait.

The Bering Memorial, Bering Island (Neil Cooke)

We also started our expedition from PK. The trip up the coast of Kamchatka and Chukotka to Anadyr, was 14 days. From 54 Degrees latitude to 64 degrees 45 minutes north.

The Trip

I think the best way to describe our fabulous trip is via photos.

Sketch showing our trip up the Kamchatka Peninsula to Anadyr in the Chukotka Region of the Russian Far East.

The city of PK is in a stunning setting at the south of the Kamchatka Peninsula. In winter the city gets 10’s of meters of snow.

View of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian Far East (Nikki Dolling)

Starting again at the Zhupanova River:

The erupting volcano at the Zhupanova River (Craig Smith).

And that sparrow that looks remarkably like a Steller’s Sea Eagle:

Pictures of the Steller’s Sea Eagle, Zhupanova River, Kamchatka Peninsula, Russian Far East (Craig Smith)

From the Zhupanova River on the way to the Commander Islands we saw a lot of whales including the critically endangered Northern Pacific Right Whale.

I saw a critically endangered Northern Pacific Right Whale between PK and the Commander Islands (this is a photo from the Web). Note the dual blow holes that produce a “v” shaped “blow” that allows you to recognise the whale from its “blow” only.

Orca Whale (photo actually taken between Meinypin’glo and Pika River) (by Craig Smith)

We stopped at a number of settlements during the expedition both on the Commander Islands and the mainland. The harsh reality of life in the Russian Far East was evident both in terms of the buildings and infrastructure, and how hard everyone was working in the summer months to do repairs and collect food for the winter.

Abandoned House – Bering Island, Commander Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula (Nikki Dolling)

The smaller of the Commander Islands, Medny, is home to seal and sea lion colonies, as well as the beautiful arctic fox, which we were lucky enough to encounter.

Seal Colony on Commander Island with an Arctic Fox (Craig Smith)

The Arctic Fox (Heritage Expeditions team).

Our Ship in Commander Bay (Heritage Expedition Team)

Bad night photo of the view back towards the Kamchatka Peninsula, one of the only ones we have! (Nikki Dolling).

View of the Medny Island, Commander Islands, Kamchatka Peninsula (Nikki Dolling)

One of the rare Orchids in the Russian Far East (Nikki Dolling)

Karaginskiy Island

Looking out onto Karaginskiy Island (Heritage Expedition Team)

On Karaginskiy Island we saw, much to Nikki’s delight, Puffins! They really are a rather special bird, especially when they are trying to take off from the water. They usually give up and just sit there looking adorable.

A horned puffin (Craig Smith)

A tufted puffin (Craig Smith)

Puffins that actually managed to get off the water (Craig Smith)

And here is Nikki’s red arctic fox that we encountered on our wander up the hills on Karaginskiy Island (Craig Smith).


Goven Peninsula

Goven Peninsula was particularly special and is the location that the expedition has previously had the most encounters with brown bears, hence the nickname of ‘Bear Gully’. We were offered an opportunity to spend 3 hours on the mainland bear spotting at this particularly scenic place. Although we were not lucky that night to see any when we were on land, we had amazing encounters along the beach from the Zodiac…

Three very healthy looking cubs with their mother on the beach (Craig Smith)

We encountered a couple of families wandering the beach in search of food (Craig Smith)

And the agility of the bears was quite amazing as they scampered up and down the cliff faces, playing together (Craig Smith).

Tintikun Lagoon

We spent an afternoon at Tintikun Lagoon spotting bears and birds. For the more adventurous there was the chance to take a dip in some hot (read tepid!) springs. We just admired the scenery instead.

Tintikun Lagoon, Kamchatka Peninsula (Nikki Dolling)

Bear hanging out near the lagoon (or, in Nikki’s view, “Bear prowling the foreshore working out how to get to you and eat your face…..”)

Lavrova Bay:

Lavrova Bay was particularly atmospheric, with the wrecks of some unfortunate ships and an old herring station abandoned in the 1970’s.

A whaling boat which sank 15-20 years ago and abandoned in the Bay (Craig Smith).

Another wreck which had come apart since the last time the expedition went through Lavrova Bay, with the stern washed ashore 100m away (Nikki Dolling).

A rare shot of a Sea Otter floating on his back in Lavrova Bay. We saw lots of otters but they are rather camera shy and would duck away from sight immediately (Craig Smith).

Old Herring Station used from 1960 until due to overfishing the Herring numbers collapsed in 1975 (Craig Smith).

Bear Prints (Heritage Expedition Team).

Blukta Glublokaya

The glasslike waters at Blukta Glublokaya gave us a welcome respite from the rough seas that had kept us awake for a few nights, as well as a beautiful Zodiac ride in the Bay. As well as otters, seals and amazing bird life, we visited the lonely and isolated cemetery on a bluff for sailors who have died while in this area.

(Heritage Expedition Team)

Pika River Walrus

(Craig Smith)


Much of our wildlife viewing and all of our disembarkations were done via Zodiac. The second half of the trip was with a moderate swell which made getting on to and off of the boats from the gangplank very tricky and dangerous at times. We would often be standing up the top or circling on the Zodiacs below waiting for the right moment to jump across! Despite some nervous moments, the worst incident merely involved very wet feet (and pants – the wave went up to the hips!)

Nikki and Neil travelling by Zodiac (Craig Smith)

Spoon-Billed Sandpiper

One of the focus areas of the trip was support for the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper bird task force. The Spoon Billed Sandpiper is a critically endangered species with a population now estimated at less than 200 pairs worldwide. There is a taskforce that is working on ensuring its survival. The Sandpiper nests only in the Russian Far East, despite migrating to China, Bangladesh and India at other times of the year. With no protection in these other countries and being very site specific for mating, their numbers are decreasing everywhere except the breeding colony at Meynypil’glo. We spent the last few days of the trip scouting different locations for the Sandpiper and were lucky enough to see some nesting.

The critically endangered Spoon-billed Sandpiper, Meynypil’glo (Heritage Expedition Team).

Two male Spoon-Billed Sandpipers disagreeing about nesting arrangements (Craig Smith)

As Chris, one of the guides pointed out, more tourists have been to the top of Everest in the past year than have seen the breeding ground of the Spoon-Billed Sandpiper….

Indigenous Chukotka Community

We saw a great presentation by the young people in community at Meynypil’glo. They performed dances, songs and cultural displays in their native language and specific to their village. They only get to perform 2 or 3 times per year and they clearly loved to share their culture with us.

Young people from Meynypil’glo dressed in native Chutoka costume for the cultural show (Nikki Dolling)

Our literary partner on the expedition has been this:


It’s the story by James Raffan who circled the world at, or close to the Arctic Circle to meet with indigenous communities and discuss the effect of climate change, and other factors, on them and their culture.

One of the most interesting take outs from the book was that the issues affecting the indigenous communities on the Arctic Circle are not dissimilar to the issues faced by our own indigenous communities in Australia. One of the biggest learnings from Raffan’s book, however was that the issue of fate control was raised continually by the communities he visited going around the Arctic circle; whether they be in Norway, Finland, Canada, Alaska, or Russia.

He found that communities must be in control of their own destiny to help ensure the health of the community. One of the key ways to help this is for land tenure to be with the original custodians of the land. This is happening significantly in Canada and Alaska and, while the situation is not perfect by any means, it is better I believe than Australia.

Certainly made me think…..


Posted by capetocape2017 11:23 Archived in Russia Tagged sea eagle right northern pacific whale kamchatka chukotka stellers Comments (1)

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